At the end of a class, many Pilates instructors tout the line “feel that you’ve grown an inch taller today.” What’s more accurate, probably, would be to say “feel that you’ve found and extra inch in your height today.” And that might actually be possible for some.
Consider for a moment, sitting up straight, as tall as you can. Could you possibly sit up any taller? Most likely, you could. If you were told to hug into your midline, lift your pelvic floor and create space between your vertebra. All fine and good, but what about your clients? Would that granular instruction work for them? Where is the midline? And how on Earth do we find the pelvic floor (more on that here)?
Today’s cue has the purpose of giving the client a goal when it comes to axial elongation; something they can reach for, quite literally. Ask the client to imagine a witch’s black, pointy-tipped hat (still going with the season here, but a top hat works just as well) hovering just above his or her head when she’s seated. Ask the client to sit up straight and reach the spine into length in order to fit the hat onto her head.
I find this is most effective at the end of a movement. For instance, as the client comes to the top of Assisted Rollup and is meant to find a neutral spine and pause, give the cue as she is reaching for axial elongation and neutral spine. You’ll find that the client will give you a little extra reach, possibly that elusive extra inch, if you give her a something to reach for!
So your client can get to a neutral spine no problem. He or she has just the right amount of kyphosis in the thoracic curve, lordosis in the lumbar curve and the chin tucked back and in to create the optimal cervical curve to perfectly perch the head at the top of the vertical gravity line. Whew! Your client can do neutral.
But there’s more to posture than just a neutral spine. This is where axial elongation is key. Achieving this requires engagement all the way from the arches of the feet, up the inner thigh and pelvic floor to the front and back of the trunk. But there’s more. Try it. What’s missing? How can we cue the client to engage and elongate through the cervical spine?
One-on-one with a client, the occipital touch cue is magical and immediately effective. To do this, put the pointer finger of your hand on the neck, behind the earlobe, just where the jaw bone comes in (this is where the occiput bone of the skull ends). Put your thumb on the neck, just where it begins to spread out to connect to the shoulder. Then spread these two fingers gently, maintaining contact with the client’s body (It helps to employ both hands so you can do this on both sides of the neck). The effect is direct and instantaneous. The client’s neck will grow an inch in length and any slight inconsistencies with the posture lower down on the spine will be corrected. Try it – on yourself, as you read this.
Unfortunately, as many of us teach in a larger class setting, there’s no way we can walk around and employ the magical occipital touch on all the students. Here’s where the imagery cue comes in. Imagine you are wearing long, dangly earrings. They are so long that they just touch your shoulders. Create enough length through your neck and cervical spine to lift the earrings off your shoulders so they can dangle freely. Et voilà.
This is also a really effective cue (both the corrective touch and the imagery) for clients who tend to tense their shoulders and let them creep upwards.
Joseph Pilates said, “Good posture can be successfully acquired when the entire mechanism of the body is under perfect control. Graceful carriage follows as a matter of course.” In other words, when axial elongation is achieved, the body’s alignment allows for greater freedom and efficiency of movement. The problem is, how do we get our clients to that point? How do you explain that perfect posture isn’t just unhunching your shoulders?
Try this: Imagine someone holding a bunch of balloons on a string that is attached to the crown of your head. Now imagine that the person lets go. As the balloons float upwards, the string pulls your crown with it and forces you to sit up very straight – inches taller than you were. You call upon your cervical, trunk and pelvic floor musculature in order to eek a bit more height out of your spine and pelvic skeletal structures. This lengthening creates more space between your vertebra, also known as axial elongation, allowing for that increased freedom and efficiency of movement, or “graceful carriage.”
This cue can be used to correct positioning during specific exercises (spine twist, mermaid, standing balance, etc.) where the posture is meant to be maintained throughout, or we can use this to properly set up for other exercises that begin in or pass through this position (rollup, standing roll down, spine stretch, saw, and so many more!).
See if this cue doesn’t help your clients feel just a tad bit taller when they leave class!
Imagine the worst shoulder posture you can think of. See it? Now what does it make you think of? It looks sad to me, like a frown. If you can picture the collar bone in this position, it is downturned, just like a sad face.
Now, turn that frown upside down!
Imagine a smile spreading across the collarbones and watch shoulder posture transform from sad and limp to happy and purposeful and upright!